In an age when putting together top-flight opera casts is becoming a very difficult endeavor, Lyric Opera of Chicago is still finding a way to do it with style. In one weekend, operagoers were able to hear such greats as Luciano Pavarotti, Piero Cappuccilli, Fiorenza Cossotto, Marilyn Horne, June Anderson, Edita Gruberova, Neil Shicoff, and Bonaldo Giaiotti in operas by Verdi, Handel, and Donizetti. And the rest of the season is filled by the strongest roster of any American opera company. As with most domestic opera troupes, the general production style is conservative. Yet general manager Ardis Krainik is not above mounting a traditional opera in slightly nontraditional fashion, as was reported to be the case with Wagner's ``Parsifal'' this season. A nine-production season does not give Lyric Opera much room to experiment with repertoire, and yet Chicagoans had a go at a Handel opera - ``Orlando'' with Miss Horne and Miss Anderson - as well as Janacek's challenging ``Katya Kabanova,'' a novelty in any house.
Donizetti's ``Lucia di Lammermoor'' with Miss Gruberova and Mr. Shicoff was a Lyric Opera triumph. Gruberova is Europe's outstanding Lucia, and here she gave an astonishing demonstration of her art. The level of poise, of sheer vocal mastery, of musical and dramatic insight - wedded to flawless musicianship, and a technique that allows her to do virtually anything with the voice, top to bottom - are unprecedented on today's vocal scene. The ``Mad Scene'' was one of the finest I have ever heard - a magnificent piece of vocalism, and a study in the communicative power of histrionic simplicity.
Arturo, played by Shicoff, was in particularly fine voice at last Sunday's performance, with the sort of free-ringing high notes we always hope to hear from him, and with the impetuousness of characterization that makes his work so appealing. Mr. Giaiotti's authoritative Raimondo was also welcome. Only J. Patrick Raftery, who once showed so much promise, seemed out of place in all this vocal gold.
The Lyric Opera's strength lies in its depth of casting. Few other houses would care to cast the role of Ulrica in Verdi's ``Un Ballo in Maschera'' with a star like Miss Cossotto. Though this character has only one scene in the opera, it is a crucial moment. The luxury of hearing Cossotto, with her vivid stage presence and dazzling vocal projection, especially in the lower register, was proof positive of why it shortchanges Verdi to undercast this major role.
While on the subject of ``Ballo,'' it must be noted that Mr. Cappuccilli brought to his portrayal of Renato his brand of vocal elegance, stylistic authority, and smooth-toned singing that have been the hallmarks of this remarkable baritone's art for over 20 years. Mr. Pavarotti, the reason for the revival, was in top form throughout the evening, though there was a certain reserve to his portrayal of King Gustavus. Harolyn Blackwell's Oscar was sung with silvery tones and a buoyancy that never settled into the merely chirpy.
The weak link was the Amelia of Maria Chiara, whose soprano is streched just beyond its limitations by the part. Her instincts are good enough, and she uses the entire range of her voice shrewdly. Yet there is not much animation to her art, and the top notes are rather too pinched and white-toned to bring the requisite vocal expansiveness to the music.
Marilyn Horne, the Orlando, continues to give the impression that there is nothing she cannot do with her extraordinary instrument. June Anderson made an exceptionally beautiful, vocally glamorous Angelica, tossing off the roulades, embellishments, and staccatos with ease. The surprise of ``Orlando'' was Gianna Rolandi's stylish, restrained, and appealing Dorinda. Countertenor Jeffrey Gall was an effective Medoro.
``Orlando,'' a co-production with San Francisco Opera, was staged by John Copley, with a good balance between the imaginative, the self-consciously cute, and the slightly kitschy. It served to keep the artifices of Baroque opera lively for an uninitiated audience.
John Conklin's ``Ballo'' sets, on loan from the San Francisco Opera, are attractive in a massive way; Sonja Frisell's staging is simple and direct, with a clear sense of the social structure and panoply of court life. Henry Bardon's Dallas Opera sets are functional and evocative, though Peter Reichenbach's staging was so bland as to be nonexistent.
Though the Lyric Opera has never been celebrated as a conductor's house, I have never heard truly poor conducting there. Artistic director Bruno Bartoletti was sturdy, low-key, and generally very attentive to his singers in the ``Ballo.'' By bringing in Sir Charles Mackerras for a fleet, engaging ``Orlando,'' the Lyric Opera was able to use him for ``Lucia'' as well. One was grateful for his brand of authority and affection for the music, as well as his ability to keep the drama moving while allowing the singers all the room and support they needed to make the most of each phrase.